He Said/She Said, Save Our Sons, and the Stories that Stick: Part Two of a Two-Part Series of Columns

Posted in: Education

In Part One of this series, I suggested that men who say “not guilty” in response to a sexual assault accusation are not especially credible and that we accordingly need an explanation for why people find the accuser’s words equally lacking in credibility (and therefore call the dispute a “he said/she said” dilemma for the factfinder). I began to propose that gendered narratives may play a role.

I suggest that stereotypical narratives may account for people’s willingness to regard an acquaintance rape case as “he said/she said.” He claims that he is innocent and as we have seen that juries know, that claim alone does little to distinguish the guilty from the innocent. Then “she” claims that he raped her, and we immediately think, “well, she was dating him at the time, and everyone knows that when a man rejects a woman, the woman often claims rape to retaliate against the man for rejecting her. Because the couple is likely to have broken up by the time of the accusation, the split feeds the narrative of rejection followed by defamation that we are primed to detect. Just as the defendant’s (or Title IX respondent’s) statement is not especially credible, so then the complainant’s claim may be prima facie defamatory and presumptively false as well. To the question, “why in the world would a woman claim that she was raped when she wasn’t?,” the answer is “you know, sometimes when a man rejects a woman, the woman becomes so angry at the man that she ‘cries rape,’ to punish him for it.”

A story like this may have no basis in fact, but it doesn’t need to. An automatic response disbelieving alleged victims rests on a foundation of stories, not facts and evidence. If I were in a group called “Save Our Sons,” I might say that my son was falsely accused, but how would I know? My commitment to my son’s innocence precedes and heavily filters my ability to process the evidence of his guilt. To quote the Unicorn Song by Peter, Paul, and Mary, “Seeing is believing in the things you see. Loving is believing in the ones you love.” Then another parent might come along with a story of how her son is a “casualty of Title IX” as well, and she too has concluded that her son is innocent. With all of us gathered together, many of us women who stand up for our young men, we avoid charges of misogyny as we protest the anti-male bias of the academy. Someone watching our organization might say, “What are the odds that so many men were falsely accused but that the system is nonetheless fair?” The odds would indeed seem to be slim if the premise were based on evidence rather than on a parent-child bond. My child “could not” be guilty of the conduct charged, says the most devoted and biased character witness nature has crafted.

Myths that degrade a large group of individuals can be the product of projection. Take “hell hath no fury….” Some men, feeling rage upon rejection (even when it takes the form of hearing “no” on a particular occasion) lash out violently in the form of rape. Having themselves enacted the story of punishing rejection, they transfer the story to the woman who has now become the one rejected and who lashes out with lies.

I wonder sometimes whether it might be possible to adduce evidence that would persuade the doubters that women who are scorned do not generally accuse their scorners of rapes they did not commit. More to the point, I try to come up with evidence that could convince people that when a woman tells them that her date raped her, there is nothing improbable about what they are hearing. Might the woman be lying? Yes, of course. It is always possible that any given witness is lying. But nothing about the statement “my date raped me” should give rise to greater skepticism than anything else does. It is evidence, it is testimony, and it is credible absent a good reason to doubt it.

Many years ago, I saw a film called “Fatal Attraction,” starring Michael Douglas and Glen Close. The movie depicts an extramarital affair between a husband (Douglas) and an “other woman” (Close). When the husband returns to his wife and rejects the other woman, the latter becomes unhinged and extremely violent and must ultimately be killed by the man’s wife to restore order to their home.

When we saw the movie, my friends and I called it a “backlash film,” based on the fascinating book by Susan Faludi that we were all reading at the time, Backlash. The movie was a lot of fun but trafficked in numerous gender stereotypes. After a large number of people had seen it, a meme emerged that had men saying they were terrified by the Glen Close character in the film and would not dare to even consider cheating on their partners now that they had seen it. Though most people would agree that cheating is generally a suboptimal relationship choice, I found these reactions perplexing. What had the men learned from “Fatal Attraction”? Apparently, they had learned that if they cheated, the other woman would turn out to be criminally insane and would go on to kill their whole family (starting with the adorable pet rabbit). The men seemingly viewed the movie as evidence for this gruesome fate, evidence that deterred them from affairs they might have otherwise considered. This is striking both because one story is a mere anecdote and because this one story happened to have been fictional.

Why do I mention “Fatal Attraction”? Because I believe that the story of the “girl who cried rape” to satisfy her rage after being rejected is just such a story. “Fatal Attraction” taught us that “other women” literally destroy families, and the story of the accused sexual assailant as the victim of his rejected, lying date is an account of what people fear could happen when the public begins taking acquaintance rape seriously: the crazies will come out of the woodwork to punish innocent men for rejecting them, wielding “she said” false stories of rape. The same women who are sane when they testify against a robber, a stranger rapist, or even a date rapist who allegedly raped someone else, become lunatics when testifying against their own boyfriends.

The irrationality of the way people cling to these stories suggests that they might be resistant to rebuttal by evidence. Just think of Sigmund Freud. When a number of female patients came to see him, complaining of having been, as children, molested by family members, Freud concluded that the women must be fantasizing about the reported events rather than remember real abuse. Rather than draw what should have at least been one of the conclusions that flowed from the evidence, that many girls experienced sexual abuse in their homes, Freud chose instead to pathologize the women and their claims. Other such narratives that first developed in our modern world include a commitment to the proposition that vaccines cause autism, that the Sandy Hook murders were a hoax, and that most child predators are strangers to their victims. Some conspiracy theories attract the right, some the left, and some theories are orthogonal to politics, but what distinguishes the stories from evidence-based thinking is a dedication to the story over the truth and a tendency to cherry-pick examples that confirm a pre-existing bias, a bias that has perhaps stalked the earth from the beginning of recorded history.

Sticky gender narratives that do not correspond to the facts extend beyond women. Men who work as educators of young children sometimes confront the narratives as well. If you are a man who works with children, and one of those children should accuse you of sexual abuse, many will likely presume immediately that you must be guilty, however improbable the factual scenario presented by the child. The story of a male teacher in a female-dominated profession hunting for young, vulnerable victims is a familiar one. And the underlying moral lesson resembles what we see in Title IX narratives and in “Fatal Attraction.” Women’s place is as nurturers at home and at work. When a man occupies that female space, he triggers suspicion. Why would a man work with children? He must be attracted to children. And why would a woman say that her ex-partner raped her? She must be out for revenge as a woman scorned.

There is perhaps one element of truth in the revenge narrative that captivates so many people. A woman who experiences a sexual assault will often feel rage, along with humiliation and trauma. She may feel anger at the man who betrayed her trust and also at herself for believing in him. Her rape complaint against him may accordingly serve as revenge or what we might call “retribution” when it occurs within the confines of a lawful system of justice. It may be, then, that “hell hath no fury like a woman raped.”

Comments are closed.